Does anyone remember that weird period a few months ago when Conservative MPs, obviously acting on orders, started branding various bad news stories, most of them involving the unions, as a terrifying preview of Sir Keir Starmer’s Britain?
The obvious problem with this line of attack is that all the stories were from the current, Conservative-run Britain. Obviously the idea was that things would surely be even worse should Labour get into power, but it was nonetheless a really weird line of attack.
Happily, it seems to have stopped. But clearly someone in Downing Street still thinks there’s mileage in Rishi Sunak running against parts of the Tory record. Hence, one must assume, this rather baffling bit of yesterday’s big announcement on Net Zero:
We will never impose unnecessary and heavy-handed measures on you, the British people.— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) September 20, 2023
We will still meet our international commitments and hit Net Zero by 2050. pic.twitter.com/XjXQzGVaCN
Commentators quickly pointed out that none of these things had actually happened; ministers sent out to do the media round were left to awkwardly say they weren’t sure where the suggestions had come from. It swiftly became a running joke.
But contrary to how it may sometimes appear, the Number Ten operation is not completely mad. Having the Prime Minister simply pluck non-existent policies out of the aether would stretch even the palpable air of fin de régime surrounding the Government beyond breaking point. So where did these ideas come from?
Well, three of them appear to have been ideas which have been floating around in Whitehall but never actually been brought forward as actual policy.
Defending himself against allegations he had simply made up the taxes on meat, flying, and whatever the compulsory car sharing proposal was supposed to be, the Prime Minister argues that: “These are all things that have been raised by very credible people about ways to meet our net zero obligations.
I can’t find anything official about “compulsory car sharing”, or really even conceive of how that would work. But both a tax on meat and a frequent-flyer levy were featured in leaked proposals from the Government’s “nudge unit” in 2021.
Of course, both ideas were swiftly shot down and have not seen the light of day since. Even if Sunak was responsible for that, and minded to count shooting down an internal proposal as having “scrapped” something, it is misleading to present that to the public as if it were a new announcement, and salvation from an imminent danger.
The insulation upgrade scheme, on the other hand, was real enough. The move has been widely criticised for benefiting landlords, who would have had to stump up for the renovations, at the expense of tenants, who will be stuck with poorly-insulated homes and higher heating bills. However, the Government may have reasoned that the costs of renovations would be passed on to tenants anyway in the form of rent increases, and that it would be counter-productive to add fuel to the rent crisis gripping some parts of the country, especially London.
And of course, homeowners are a core part of the Conservative electoral coalition, so staving off a policy which would inflict additional costs on them until after the next election has an obvious political logic.
Which brings us to “sorting your rubbish into seven different bins”. This was another widely ridiculed as an imagined policy. But it turns out to have been real – or at least, mostly real. As Tom Forth sets out in this very helpful blog, the Environment Act 2021 does require that all councils collect seven different waste streams.
But. (Of course there’s a but.) Per the blog, there was no fixed date for the introduction of this scheme; it comes into force only on the say-so of the Secretary of State and, indeed, has already been delayed once. The Act also contains various exceptions which mean that even without yesterday’s intervention, some areas would probably not have ended up with seven bins per household in any case.
However, Thérèse Coffey will now issue new guidance which will, apparently, banish the danger altogether and otherwise reduce the administrative burden on councils.
So how do we score the Prime Minister’s pledge card? At best, it looks like two out of five: the home insulation and, if you squint at it, the seven bins thing were policies which have been enacted and were (probably) going to come into force, and now won’t.
The other three are, at best, Sunak signalling to the Whitehall policy machine that he really isn’t going to do various ideas they keep proposing and that he has already decided not to do.